In the Southern Indian state of Kerala, where I originally come from, there is a very strong tradition that it was none other than Thomas, the apostle who famously doubted Jesus’ resurrection "until I have placed my hands in the holes left by the nails and the wound left by the spear," who came there in the first century and baptised their ancestors. For this reason they are known as St Thomas Christians. According to the tradition, St Thomas landed at the ancient port of Kodungallur, converted some of the local Brahmins with the aid of miracles and established seven churches. He then headed eastwards to the ancient temple town of Mylapore, on the outskirts of modern Chennai, where he was eventually martyred. His followers built a tomb and monastery over his grave which is today one of the principle pilgrimage centres in Southern India.
For the St Thomas Christians, this tradition is more than a myth. It is a belief, passed down from one generation to the next, which is central to their identity and place in Indian society. It is neither a recent tradition, for many travellers to Kerala, dating back to at least the sixth century, testify to it. I wish to examine here the St Thomas tradition, and what evidence there is to support it.
The Acts of Thomas
The "Acts of Thomas” is an apocryphal text that was not included in the New Testament because of its clearly mythical qualities. It is believed to be the work of a Syrian Gnostic romancer in the early third century. The text tells the story of how the apostles cast lots as to where they should go, and India fell to the lot of Thomas. As Thomas was very reluctant to go to India, Jesus appeared in a supernatural way to Abban, the envoy of an Indo-Parthian king called Gondophares, and sold Thomas to him to be his slave. After reaching the court of Gondophares, in northwestern India, Thomas was entrusted with the task of building a new palace for the king. The king gave him money to buy materials and hire workmen, but Thomas spent the money on the poor and needy. The king became angry and put Thomas in prison, but then his brother Gad died and miraculously returned to life. Upon his return he told Gondophares of the magnificent heavenly palace he had seen, which was being built through Thomas’ gifts to the poor. The king and his brother were converted and baptized, and Thomas moved on to other parts of India, eventually reaching the kingdom ruled by King Misdai. Here he converted Tertia, the wife of Misdai, and his son Vazan. After this he was condemned to death, led out of the city to a hill, and pierced through with spears by four soldiers.
Nineteenth century biblical scholars had dismissed the whole text as fictitious, for there was no record of Gondophares or any of the other details in the account. In the late nineteenth century, however, British archaeologists found coins that proved there was indeed a ruler by that name and that he had a brother called Gad. Further archaeological discoveries have confirmed many other details of the story, revealing that maritime contacts between the Roman world and India were much more extensive than previously thought. Therefore, it is difficult to dismiss the story categorically; it is possible that it contains a nucleus of truth, which may have become embellished with all kinds of legend. A. E. Medlycott concluded (1905), "It is impossible to resist the conclusion that the writer of the Acts must have had information based on contemporary history. For at no later date could a forger or legendary writer have known the name."
Early references to St Thomas
Apart from the Acts of Thomas there are many other early references to St Thomas. Here are just a few:
- Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 340), quoting the theologian Origen says: “When the holy Apostles and disciples of our Saviour were scattered over all the world, Thomas, so the tradition has it, obtained as his portion Parthia….”
- The Syriac document entitled “The Doctrine of the Apostles”, which dates back to the third century, contains the passage: “India and all its own countries and those bordering on it, even to the farthest sea, received the Apostles' Hand of Priesthood from Judas St. Thomas, who was Guide and Ruler in the Church which he built there and ministered there.”
- St Ephrem composed many hymns that bear witness to the Edessan Church’s knowledge about St Thomas’ apostolate in India. In one hymn, the devil speaks of St Thomas as the “Apostle I slew in India”. In another hymn Ephrem speaks about Thomas’ mission: “The earth darkened with sacrifices’ fumes to illuminate”. “A land of dark people fell to thy lot”, “a tainted land Thomas has purified”; “India’s dark night” was “flooded with light” by Thomas.
- St Jerome (342-420 AD): "He (Christ) dwelt in all places: with St. Thomas in India, Peter at Rome, with Paul in Illyricum."
- St Paulinus of Nola (354-431 AD): "Parthia receives Mathew, India St. Thomas, Libya Thaddeus, and Phrygia Philip".
- St Gregory of Tours (538-594 AD): “St. Thomas the Apostle, according to the narrative of his martyrdom is stated to have suffered in India. His holy remains (corpus), after a long interval of time, were removed to the city of Edessa in Syria and there interred. In that part of India where they first rested, stand a monastery and a church of striking dimensions, elaborately adorned and designed. This Theodore, who had been to the place, narrated to us.”
- St Isidore of Seville, Spain (560- 630 AD): "This St. Thomas preached the Gospel of Christ to the Parthians, the Medes, the Persians, the Hyrcanians and the Bactrians, and to the Indians of the Oriental region and penetrating the innermost regions and sealing his preaching by his passion he died transfixed with a lance at Calamina...a city of India, and there was buried with honor".
These are not minor names; they include some of the eminent theologians and leaders of the early church. From a very early age, it seems, the major churches were unanimous in witnessing the tradition of St Thomas’ mission to India.
Tomb of St Thomas
It is believed that St Thomas was martyred and buried in Mylapore on the outskirts of Chennai. Beginning with the Acts of Thomas, there are statements about the existence of his tomb in India in almost every century. His body was later taken to Edessa. St Gregory of Tours, before 590AD, confirms this as well as the existence of a church over St. Thomas’ tomb: “His holy remains (corpus), after a long interval of time, were removed to the city of Edessa in Syria and there interred. In that part of India where they first rested, stand a monastery and a church of striking dimensions, elaborately adorned and designed. This Theodore, who had been to the place, narrated to us.”
The church in Edessa has a record of the arrival of the corpse. An early entry on the church’s ecclesiastical calendar reads: “3 July, St Thomas who was pierced with a lance in India. His body is at Urhai [ancient name for Edessa] having been brought there by the merchant Khabin. A great festival.” Today a beautiful church, called San Thome Basilica, stands over the site of St Thomas’ original tomb.
A controversy to affect the early church was Nestorianism, which was a doctrine advanced by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 – 431 AD. He held the belief that in Jesus there were two distinct persons, one divine and one human, rather than one divine person. Nestorianism spread east to Persia, a traditional enemy of the Roman Empire, and across Asia. The church in Kerala, which was rather cut off from the rest of the Christian world, received bishops from Persia and was influenced by Nestorianism. However, with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498 things took a different turn.
The Portuguese viewed all St Thomas Christians as heretics, and they felt it was their duty to bring the local Christians under Rome and purge them of their doctrinal errors. This foreign incursion into the internal affairs of the church was resisted by many St Thomas Christians and caused splits. Many of them did eventually did come into communion with the Roman Catholic Church but others did not. It is possible that the Portuguese, who only tolerated the supremacy of Rome and its Petrine apostolic tradition, may have destroyed any documentary evidence there was of St Thomas’ apostolate in India.
Upper caste origins
St Thomas would have sought out the Jews first in his ministry, for that was what Jesus had instructed his disciples to do, and then the Gentiles. At that time there were many Jews in Kodungallur, as well as some other parts of Kerala, who were involved in the vibrant sea trade between Kerala and the Mediterranean. It is highly likely that some of these Jews became the first Christian converts. The other converts are thought to have come mainly from the upper caste indigenous people.
If one accepts oral tradition, the Apostle received into the Christian fold only those who came forward willingly and out of conviction. Presumably it was the upper caste people who were more able to engage with the Apostle in debates and accepted the new faith. All this happened at a time before the Brahmin hegemony of Kerala when society was not as highly stratified as it later became. It is unlikely, therefore, that these converts had much to lose socially or economically.
Sceptics point out that Brahmins only arrived in Kerala in the seventh century. It is true that the major influx of Brahmins to Kerala happened then, but there were already small, sparsely scattered Brahmin settlements in the first century. Palayur in Thrissur District, where my paternal ancestors come from, was one such settlement. There was also a Jewish settlement here, and local tradition says St Thomas preached to the Jews first before the others. After the conversion of some Brahmin priests the rest of the Brahmins of Palayur left the village cursing the land. So this area came to be known as Shappakad (“cursed land”), and later as Chavakad. The temple in Palayur was converted to a Christian church. A palm leaf record kept by a Brahmin family in the nearby village of Venmanad, quoted by Fr Placid J Podipara, showed that in the Hindu kali era of 3158, a Christian sanyasi called Thomas came to the village and converted a few Brahmins by baptizing them in the temple pool, thereby desecrating the holy temple.
Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI caused a bit of stir in Kerala when, in a speech at St Peter’s Square on 27 September 2006, he said, “Thomas first evangelised Syria and Persia and then penetrated as far as western India, from where Christianity reached also South India.” This seemed to imply that St Thomas did not visit South India at all, which was a departure from previous popes who on several occasions referred to St Thomas as the “Apostle of India”. The Vatican did subsequently amend the text of his speech, but there is nothing in the statement that denies the possibility St Thomas visited South India.
Although none of the evidence is conclusive proof of St Thomas’ visit to Kerala, the possibility he did go there cannot be dismissed out of hand. The more you study the evidence, including local traditions in Kerala, the more you are drawn to the conclusion he did go there. What is undeniable is the antiquity of the church in Kerala, which predates many churches in the west. No longer cut off from the rest of the Christian world, many St Thomas Christians are today in communion with the wider Catholic Church; and at a time when Christian worship in Europe is falling, the church is Kerala is thriving. Christians in Kerala are very much part of the fabric of society unlike some of their co-religionists in other parts of the country.
For the St Thomas Christians, that the Apostle came to their land and baptised their ancestors is a matter of faith, great pride and joy. Their memories of St Thomas are passed down in their songs and traditions from one generation to the next. The apostle who famously doubted Jesus’ resurrection and allegedly pleaded not to go to India has most definitely redeemed himself there.